Those of us who love the arts know that the thought of life without art is a pitiful one. Some of us, myself included, would even go so far as to say that our lives depend on its inclusion. Likewise the need to reconnect regularly with nature in order to give our minds and bodies a rest, and provide the energy we need to keep going. The importance of art and environment is something we refer to time and again as we plead our case to the wider community for recognition, funding and protection. For the people of Ethiopia’s remote Omo River Valley however, the central role of art and nature to wellbeing is more than just an ideal. It is absolutely essential to their survival.
Renowned for the wide variety of wildlife and diverse eco-systems it supports, the 760km long Omo River is home to approximately 500,000 indigenous tribespeople, of which roughly half live in the Lower Omo Valley. Inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1980 as a place of outstanding universal value, it is the site of the earliest known signs of homosapien existence. A semi-nomadic people, the tribes of the Omo inhabit one of the few remaining pristine riverine forests in semi-arid Africa, and indeed the world. They are agro-pastoralists who live near the river during the dry season, moving to grassland during the annual floods, grazing cattle, hunting game and fishing for survival. Life in the Omo Valley is one of ancient ritual, with a deep connection to the land and reverence for the environment. Animals are respected for their life-giving properties, with tribes such as the Bodi singing poems to their favourite cattle as a form of thanksgiving. Though they profess no religion, the tribes of the Omo River Valley celebrate nature and a harmonious connection to the spirit world with glorious displays of body painting, decorative scarring and piercing that are both a source of pride and a necessary shield from harsh environmental conditions.
Omo tribespeople begin tending herds from the age of eight, allowing for a lot of time in the fields to practice their decorative techniques. Clay is slathered directly on to skin to prevent sunburn and insect bites, while limestone is used as a pesticide. Red ochre, yellow sulfur, white kaolin and grey ash, common minerals in the region, have more ritualized and superstitious applications that designate social standing, ward off illness and attract partners. Surma children use leaves, branches, seedpods, fruit and seeds to decorate their body, while the Mursi incorporate horns, bones, shells and hides. As mirrors are virtually non-existent, they paint each other and rely on the reaction of their peers to know the overall effect of their appearance. It is a way of life that is pure, relatively peaceful and unchanged for millennia.
At least, it was. The Omo River Valley is now in danger due to the construction of a massive hydro-electric dam known as Gibe III that is being built to support vast commercial plantations in southwest Ethiopia. Already under construction, it will be the second largest hydroelectric plant in Africa on completion. Ecologists and environmental scientists have predicted that filling the reservoir will destroy the fragile ecosystem of the area, and force tribes from their lands as irrigation canals divert water away from the river system and into neighbouring plantations. Both the European Investment Bank and the African Development Bank declined to fund the project due to environmental concerns, however alternative funding has been negotiated with China’s largest bank, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, and the World Bank.
It is a devastating time for the eight tribes that inhabit the Omo River Valley, as they face destruction not only from the Gibe III dam, but also the arrival of multinational corporations who develop large plantations, government-sanctioned national parks and hunting concessions. According to Survival International, the government began to lease out vast blocks of fertile land in the Lower Omo region in 2011 to Malaysian, Italian, Indian and Korean companies to plant biofuels and cash crops such as oil palm, jatropha, cotton and maize. It evicted Bodi, Kwegu, and Mursi people from their land into resettlement areas to make way for the large state-run Kuraz Sugar Project, an area that currently covers 150,000 hectares but which could eventually cover 245,000 hectares. The Suri who live west of the Omo are also being forcibly resettled to make way for large commercial plantations. With competition for land fierce, the Omo tribespeople are experiencing inter-group conflict for the first time, made even more distressing by the arrival of guns from war ravaged Sudan. AK-47s are now replacing tribal weapons with horrific results.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t stand the thought of a culture that so wholly embraces the things I value being annihilated, hence why I’m dedicating these words and my time to the cause. If you can’t stomach it either, please follow the links below, and if you’re at all unsure, then perhaps these images by German photographer Hans Silvester will help twist your arm…